Sundance 2017 Day 8 Capsules | Buzz Blog

Friday, January 27, 2017

Sundance 2017 Day 8 Capsules

Hologram Hamm, Egyptian noir and journalism in peril.

Posted By on January 27, 2017, 10:09 AM

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Marjorie Prime (Premieres) **1/2
Writer/director Michael Almereyda adapts Jordan Harrison's 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist play in a way that somehow flattens the human emotion into chilly science fiction, leaving its ideas to drift like thesis statements. In an unspecified near future, 86-year-old Marjorie (Lois Smith), experiencing progressive dementia, receives therapeutic assistance in the form of a holographic computer program simulating her dead husband, Walter (Jon Hamm) while being cared for by her daughter (Geena Davis) and son-in-law (Tim Robbins).  From start to finish, there's never a question that Marjorie Prime is all about memory, juxtaposing the complex way humans form, retrieve and often repress memories with the perfect, every-time-the-same recall of the computerized characters ("I'll remember next time," Walter "Prime" repeatedly intones as he stores more information about his namesake's life). But despite the great quartet of central performances—and particularly how wonderful it is to see Davis in a meaty movie role—those notions remain almost entirely intellectual exercises, as Almereyda dwarfs his characters in the massive oceanfront house that is his single setting. Maybe people's inner lives are mostly the sum of their memories, but a movie needs to be a little bit more. (Scott Renshaw)

The Nile Hilton Incident (World Dramatic) ****
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This film understands that the essence of film noir is corruption in the universe, and that what makes Z an all-time great political thriller is how institutional corruption rains on the just and unjust alike, and by the just and unjust alike. The titular Nile Hilton incident is a murder where the suspect is well-connected and -protected. Every cop is on the take, including the hero Noredin (Fares Fares), because "the take" is how anything gets done. It's Claude Rains-level funny when someone indignantly says "are you accusing me of taking a bribe?" One holding cell is open on all sides and inmates still die; the offices in the police station are transparent, because why hide what everybody knows? Wherever Noredin takes the investigation, institutions work at cross-purposes, for him and against him, in ways he's not above using. And when Egypt's top political rulers get involved, cops on different teams (hilariously) learn it at the exact same instant. But it's still just another way to get your cut or promotion, not ideology or justice. Director Tariq Saleh keeps things crisp and moving (a lot of foreign noirs don't) as the bodies pile up. Meanwhile, every Mubarak photo reminds us that this is all about to be swept aside, taking even the noir protagonist's last stab at virtue with it. (Victor Morton)

Band Aid (U.S. Dramatic) ***
"What if we turned all our fights into songs?" says Ben (Adam Pally) to his wife Anna (Zoe Lister-Jones), in a line of dialogue so high-concept it had to have been crafted for the eventual trailer. It's a funny concept—a perpetually at-one-another's-throats young couple, both fumbling through unsatisfying under-employment, who try to use art as auto-marriage counseling—and Lister-Jones (who also wrote and directed) gives the humor a satisfying kick, including the welcome weirdness of Fred Armisen as the neighbor/recovering sex addict who becomes their band's drummer, and a positively inspired sight gag involving a harmonica holder. The only real downside: Eventually, things are gonna have to get real, with Ben and Anna facing the real issues causing their unhappiness, which will necessarily involve one of those scenes where they tear into each other, punching at their respective most vulnerable points.  It's just a bummer to see something that had been so frisky get so grim, all in the name of making the story feel like a more serious observation about The Difficulties of Being a Young Married Person in 2017. Would it be such a bad thing just to have a movie about a bickering pair that airs their tuneful dirty laundry at open mics? (SR)

78/52 (Midnight) ***1/2
Critic Richard Corliss, lamenting the rise of the Siskel & Ebert show, said he once had great hopes for TV as a medium for film criticism because you could actually show what you were trying to describe. Alexandre Philippe's film on the iconic shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho—the title refers to the number of set-ups and cuts in the scene—achieves what Corliss thought (rightly or wrongly) visual criticism hadn't achieved on TV. The first 30 minutes of background and history are "meh," trying too hard for my tastes to make (dubious) Grand Statements about sociological contexts. But I suspect it would also help acclimate viewers who don't live, breathe and excrete movies. But once 78/52 gets into the nitty-gritty of the scene, playing and re-playing bits of it repeatedly, it's film-lover catnip. Each rerun as Philippe goes through the scene gives one of the well-chosen and authoritative talking heads—directors, sound technicians, musicians, editors and historians—a chance to saying something relevant to his expertise and/or pimp for his field. My favorite such moment was a musician who had the first Psycho cue tattooed on his forearm saying "that's not Hitch, that's Bernard Herrmann." The whole thing feels like one of Roger Ebert's legendary one-shot-at-a-time public film viewings. I keep wanting to yell out "Stop!" and ask a question. (VM)

Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press (U.S. Documentary) **1/2
You can understand if director Brian Knappenberger is alarmed by a number of different things, but that doesn't mean putting all of those things into the same movie makes for a coherent cinematic argument. He begins with high-profile case in which Hulk Hogan sued Gawker Media for running a sex tape of him online, and spends a fair amount of time on the details of the case. Ultimately, however, it seems that all the time spent on the details of the case don't matter—except for head-shaking at its weirdness—because the real point of the story is billionaire Peter Thiel's spite-driven financing of Hogan's case, raising questions of how easy it might be for money to bring down a journalistic enterprise (assuming you agree that's what Gawker actually was). And then Knappenberger moves on to the case of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and its purchase by the family of Sheldon Adelson. And then moves on again to the threats to journalism feared in a Trump administration, which seems to be more about the threat of his bully pulpit than the threat of breaking them financially. The result is a movie that's compelling in individual pieces, and clearly paints a scary picture for the Fourth Estate, but feels wildly fragmented, like the result of pasting together three individual short documentaries to make a feature. Journalism has its best chance at thriving if it isn't just about alarming people, but about putting together a story in a way that makes sense to them. (SR)

Axolotl Overkill (World Dramatic) **1/2
“Miles of style,” to steal a friend's line (about a Park Chan-wook film). “Inches of substance,” to coin my rebuttal (both there and here). I had a similar reaction a few days ago to Beach Rats, both gorgeous but empty films being about a nihilistic layabout teen, and where I couldn't get past my dislike for the antihero protagonist and for the film's indulgent tone theretoward. Nevertheless, Axolotl Overkill is the work of someone born to make movies, or at least music videos. Sequences throb with energetic movement and garish lighting effects, and when the dialogue drops out and the soundtrack is taken over by music, diegetic and not, it has the feeling of a rave (there's one here and in Beach Rats; this seems to be a genre requirement). It excites the sensations, sure, but does little for the intellect or the conscience. The plot is just a lackadaisical string of events over a few days in the sensationalistic life of antihero Mifti (a charismatic Jasna Fritzi Bauer; she's going places), the sort of teen who confuses assholishness for authenticity. Smoking at a holocaust site, dismissing politeness as “spaz” behavior, pride over one's shallowness (“Ice from pistachios? Is that one of those new Balkan countries?”) … and get off my lawn!! (VM)

About The Author

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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